Rampant Red Tape
The Sandhills Beef Company in Mullen, Nebraska stands ready to commence operation. They have the facility, cattle, employees and the target market for Nebraska beef but the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is refusing to give the plant a grant of inspection. Sandhills Beef Company would process and sell Nebraska Sandhills Beef, giving local ranchers a way to add value to their product and providing safe and quality protein to the public.
As a beef marketing outlet, Sandhills Beef Company will handle the slaughter, packaging, marketing and delivery of aged beef. They intend to harness the use of social media as one of their marketing tools. Participating ranchers will have the option to create their own “Brand” on the website utilizing videos of their operation to tell their story. Consumers will be able to see where their meat comes from and can buy with confidence. They are taking the concept of “ranch to plate” to a new level. They feel ranchers are raising a superior product and should be paid a premium price. Sandhills Beef is planning to give the average rancher a chance to sell his or her beef to a niche target market of those who desire to buy the best. Sandhills Beef Company by having different “brands” underneath the main company will have outlets for Prime, Choice and lower choice can be ground to supply the ground beef demands.
Conventionally processed and sold beef is not aged at all, so the average consumers are unable to buy “dry-aged beef” through local grocery stores. This new venture will make superior beef available to the public. Those of us who raise and eat our own beef can often take it for granted how much better it is than what is generally available.
Since August of 2019 owner Jacob Wingebach has been submitting and resubmitting forms and jumping through hoops in an attempt to make this business a reality. FSIS keeps rejecting his request, not because of food safety issues but more resource management and budget issues in the USDA. The Denver office is undermanned and they would have to install a permanent inspector in the Sandhills area to inspect his plant. But the staff issue in FSIS is not just a regional problem; a brief google search shows scores of vacant FSIS positions all over the nation.
Wingebach hired a retired 30 year USDA veterinarian and policy veteran to assist him in the application process. Wingebach has spent countless hours emailing, calling and submitting the necessary paperwork with little headway gained. He has received some help from Nebraska Representative Adrian Smith and State Senator Tom Brewer. He has also engaged with Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer.
“Our application fully meets the requirements; the USDA issues are not food safety issues but process issues that are not defined in their rules. There is no recourse with the USDA, there is no appeal. Business owners who want inspection services are bullied into agency preferences versus what is required by the code or the agency does not grant your inspection. It’s classic government overreach. As former military and civil service when I see an injustice I’m going to stand against it and make a difference for those who are coming after us,” Wingebach said. “We will go to court and see what they say. This company would bring significant economic development, housing, good paying jobs and tax revenue to our county, all from value added agriculture. Isn’t that what everyone wants? ”
Currently the application has been denied, so Wingebach has requested a hearing with an administrative judge to rule on the case. He is waiting on an answer to that request, if the hearing takes place it would be held in Washington, DC.
Wingebach and his family purchased an unused small slaughter plant and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reinventing the facility. In 2015 they opened Hooker County Meat and Packing House, offering custom processing, but Wingebach has been planning the Beef Company for years. The processing plant currently is focusing on custom meat processing to try and stay in business as they wait for the inspection. With the facility and staff they are able to schedule processing in a timely manner and offer many cutting and smoking options as well.
“The best way for people to help is by calling for custom processing. If they want to see an inspected plant in the Sandhills, please bring us your business,” he said. He believes interested folks could also file amicus briefs. For more information, contact him at 308-546-2575. F